Like so many across our country, I was shocked and horrified to witness the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in broad daylight last Monday. Mr. Floyd’s murder, the fact that so many let it proceed uninterrupted, and the days it took to arrest one of those responsible have reopened deep wounds throughout our country. Millions of our fellow citizens are in agony. How could this happen? When will it end? When will we learn?
I am a white American. I will never, no matter how much I empathize, know what it’s like to be black. To quote a friend of mine, and fellow Parsippany resident, “People who have never been black simply do not and cannot understand how traumatizing all of this is for a black person. Black people are terrified. And every day, we are assailed with videos and images of people who look like our fathers and uncles and brothers being murdered. We watch the life drain from their eyes. And it. Is. Traumatizing.”
Most people simply do not and never will understand what it’s like to be black in America. We never have and never will need to fear being casually asphyxiated by a police officer in broad daylight. Those of us who are not black need to acknowledge these complicated dynamics, and consider how our lives may be very different if we were.
Issues surrounding biases go well beyond direct interactions with law enforcement. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, “half of the white medical trainees believe such myths as black people have thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than white people”. According to the NAACP, “African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.” A recent Forbes article noted that “Black Home Buyers [Are] Denied Mortgages More Than Twice As Often As Whites”. These disparities exist empirically, in multiple fields, and directly in front of our eyes. But summoning the fortitude to make the changes protesters are seeking has, thus far, eluded us.
Where we can start is listening to, empathizing with, and supporting black Americans, not just in the midst of a tragedy like George Floyd’s murder, but in the months and years to come.
At the same time, we can still be supportive of our police officers. We cannot fall for the false narrative that you can only support one or the other, police officers, or black Americans. Adults must be capable of holding more than an “us vs. them” mentality in our heads. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of black Americans have fallen victim to abuses by police, up to and including losing their lives, over the course of centuries in this country. And we need reforms and accountability to end this injustice now, which is exactly what people are protesting and speaking out about. At the same time, police officers do an incredibly dangerous job that takes a serious toll on their bodies, mental health, and family lives. Police officers, who share a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences, deserve our respect. We do not have to pick between black Americans protesting for reform, and police officers who keep us safe. We can love both. We should love both. And if we are to finally move forward as a country, we must love both.
Opening our hearts to empathize is a start, but it is not enough. What we need to do is open our ears to hear what black people tell us is actually happening to them every day. Open our minds to accept that these are not exaggerations or isolated incidents. And then, open our mouths to demand the changes that the victims of this violence say we need and need right now.
Anything less will never break this cycle.